The Parable of the Soils: How Do You Hear?, Part 1 (Matthew Sermon 59 of 151)
June 22, 2003 | Andrew Davis
This morning we are looking at the Parable of the Seed and the Soils in Matthew 13:18-23. We come to this parable aware of the gifts of hearing, and also of listening in one sense; they're two different things, both of them, a gift from God. There's an old riddle from the 18th century which went like this. What comes with a carriage and goes with a carriage, is of no use to the carriage and yet the carriage cannot move without it. Do you know the answer? Its sound. Sound comes with a carriage, sound goes with a carriage, sound is of no use to the carriage and yet the carriage cannot move without it. Sounds are all around us, all the time. It's a gift from God to be able to hear it, to have it hit the ear drum, and come into our minds and have us understand what the sounds are, what they mean. Let me rearrange the riddle a little bit. What precedes the kingdom, advances the kingdom, is central to the kingdom and the kingdom cannot grow without it? It's the sound of the word of God. This kingdom that we've been talking about all these many months cannot grow without the proclamation of the Word. Romans 10:17, says faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. The very faith on which His kingdom is based, comes from hearing the word of God. Time magazine was talking about the sense of hearing, and I thought this paragraph was very insightful. Time asked people to select the most precious of the five senses. "Few people would name hearing, yet of all man's links to the outside world hearing seems to be the essential sense, the one that makes man peculiarly human. How precious hearing is becomes clear when it is lacking. A baby born blind, or insensitive to pain usually surmounts his handicap to lead a useful life, but a baby born deaf maybe lost to mankind. The first steps of his intellectual development are beyond his reach the sounds of life, his mother's lullaby, the clatter of a rattle, even his own yowl of hunger, remain unknown even worse, he cannot learn to imitate meaningful sounds because he cannot hear them. Unless heroic efforts rescue him, he will never truly master his own language. He will live cut off from the human race. It is hearing with its offspring, speech, that gives man his superlative ability to communicate, to pass along hard won knowledge to make use of that knowledge, and so, to rule an entire planet." That comment was very insightful, showing the importance of physical hearing, which is the foundation of our gift of speech.
As Christians, we would add it is through hearing and understanding the Word of God that we enter the kingdom of heaven. It is through speech, through the spoken word, the proclaimed word, that faith springs up in the heart, and people enter the Kingdom. Therefore, the creator of speech, the one who invented it, is standing today and saying to each one of us, he who has ears to hear, let him hear. We come to listen to the Word of God, to try to understand it. In the last 50 years, extraordinary progress has been made concerning the physics of sound — how sound is made, and how it propagates through the air as pressure waves. In my home town of Framingham there is the Bose factory. There they study sound and how it expands and contracts and study the science of the physics of sound. Likewise, in the last 50 years, there's been a great advance in the understanding of the biology of sound, how sound is transferred from pressure waves to neural signals inside the brain through the amazing ear. But we're not going to talk about the physics of sound today, we're going to talk about the theology of sound. What happens when the ear hears and vibrates with the sound of the proclaimed Gospel?
That's what we're going to look at today with the parable of the seed and the soils. I decided it best to divide the parable in half. We're only going to look at the first two soil types this week, and if God gives us the opportunity, the next two soil types next week. We're looking at the first two soils. This parable that Jesus tells, what we call the Parable of the Seed and the Soils, is perhaps his most important parable. Jesus himself said in Mark 4:13 when his disciples came to ask him what the parable meant he said, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” Jesus it seems is giving an importance to this one above the others. This is kind of an entryway parable; if you can understand this, you'll understand all the parables.
I believe the vital issue of the eternity of your soul depends very much on the issues that are raised in this parable. Whether you will spend eternity in heaven, or hell, depends on how you hear the word of God, how you hear the gospel of the kingdom. Let's restate the parable, look at its details, and then try to understand it. Jesus begins in verse 3 and says, “The sower went out to sow.” The farmer went out to sow his seed. This is clearly the evangelist, the proclaimer of the Gospel of the Kingdom. In this case that is Christ Himself. In later generations, it will be anyone who is sent to preach the gospel. Any evangelist, any humble Christian who seeks to bring his neighbor or his co-worker, his boss or relative to Christ, this is the sower, the one who goes out with the message.
What is the seed? The seed is clearly, Jesus interprets, the message about the kingdom, when anyone hears the message about the kingdom. The seed is the message of the kingdom. What does this mean? It's the very thing that the whole Gospel of Matthew has been proclaiming, this kingdom of God, the place where God rules, where He is sovereign, where he rules over his creation, things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible. This is the kingdom and more than that, where he is adored and glorified, and worshipped gladly. This is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ. This is where Christ is the gentle, humble, leader of our souls, who bids us to take His yoke upon Him... and learn from him, because he is gentle and humble in heart and will find rest for our souls. This kingdom is the kingdom which must be entered through repentance and faith, because Jesus said, “The time has come, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.” You must repent and enter the kingdom. This kingdom, this is the message. It is the kingdom described in Matthew 13, with a series of seven parables. It is something so valuable that you would sell everything that you had to obtain it. This is the kingdom.
We have no control over the seed which is sowed; we couldn't create it. It's something that comes to us right from God, Himself. Just like a physical seed does. John MacArthur put it this way, “The most faithful and dedicated Christian cannot create the word of the kingdom, any more than a farmer or scientist can create the simplest seed. Just as only God creates seeds that reproduce themselves, only God creates the word of the gospel that brings life, the life of his son to a believer.” The work of the Christian witness, therefore, is not to manufacture a message to create a synthetic seed or to modify the seed given them, but to take the revelation of God, the seed and proclaim it exactly as He has given it. The power of new spiritual life is in the word, just as the power of physical life is in the seed. We have no right to create a seed, nor could we. We merely take the seed that God has given us, and we sow it. We sow it widely. We take the message to the kingdom.
The Hardened Soil
The focus of this parable however, is not in the sower, is it? It's not really on the seed. The focus of this parable is on the soils, the four different kinds of soils, and each one represents a human being, a human heart and how he or she receives the sown message. How do we receive the proclaimed message of the Gospel? We have four different responses. The first is the walkway, the path, the highway, the hardened soil. Verse 4, “As he was scattering the seeds, some fell along the path and the birds came and ate it up.” The soil is hard, it's packed by constant traffic, it's like pavement. Therefore, when the seed hits that soil it bounces. There's no penetration whatsoever, you could cast a million seeds on that soil and none of them will bear fruit. None, it's a hardened soil. Secondly, you've got the rocky soil. In a lot of places in the near east, there's a rocky substratum of limestone. Like my garden, my yard, it grows white rocks. Have you noticed this? How they just come up out of nowhere? This is a rocky soil, and on top of it, a very thin layer of top soil. What happens when the seed goes down there is it doesn't penetrate deeply, at all, just enough soil covers it that it can make a start, but it can't go down. The roots can't go down, there’s nowhere to go but up. This seed will make really spectacular open progress at the beginning, but as soon as the sun comes up, all the moisture is dried up out of that thin layer of soil and the plant withers and dies, because it has no root. The third kind of soil is thorny soil. This is fertile soil for growth. There’s plenty of room for root development, but the problems is that the seed is competing with other plants, thorny plants that bear no fruit, and so there's a struggle going on for the nutrients, for sunlight, and for water in the soil. The seed is choked and cannot bear fruit in the end. Finally, we've got the good soil. It’s remarkable what Jesus says about the good soil, it's rich and fertile. It's plowed and loose and so the seed sinks... The seed sinks down into the soil and it bears what it says 100, 60 or 30 times what was sown. People have studied agriculture in the ancient Near East and said that a good yield is four to eight times what was sown. Modern American farmers with the most advanced techniques of fertilization and moisture control can yield a 30 to 50 times harvest. In this parable we’re talking double that at the high end, a hundred times what was sown, or also 60 or 30. After having given us this parable, Jesus then challenges us. He says, he who has ears to hear, let him hear.
That's the parable of the seed and the soil. Now we need the explanation. Last time we talked about why Jesus uses parables: first to fulfill prophecy, secondly to conceal truth from those who will not ask him for it, thirdly, to reveal truth to those who will ask, and therefore, fourthly, to make us spiritual beggars, that we will be humble enough to come and say, “Lord, teach us what the parable means.” We want our Lord to instruct us, and he does. The first soil type is the hardened unbeliever. Look at verse 19: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.” This is the seed sown along the path. Here we have the hardened heart, a darkened understanding as we've said; the four results, the four soils are four different types of people. Jesus says right away when anyone hears the message, we're not talking about agriculture, we're talking about people. This particular person, hears the message, his ear drums vibrate with the sound, but it doesn't get any further. Why? Because he doesn't understand the message. It makes no penetration because sin and Satan have worked together to harden his heart. The Old Testament version of this is what you would call being stiff-necked. Jesus speaks of stiff-necked people. In Exodus 32:9, the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.” What does that mean? Does that mean I have a sore neck. What it means is, “I will not bow my neck to your yoke. I'm not going to yield to you, God. I'm going to go my own way. I'm going to live my own kind of life. I don't want a king of the kingdom of heaven coming and telling me what to do. I'm stiff-necked, I'm not going to yield to you.” In Jeremiah 17:23, it says that the people did not listen or pay attention, they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline. Jeremiah also said in 5:3, “O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them but they felt no pain, you crushed them, but they refused correction, they made their faces harder than stone and they refused to repent.”
When the gentle king of the kingdom of heaven comes and says, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, take My yoke upon you and learn from me,” they say, “No, this is the very thing I don't want.” They're stiff-necked, they resist. Stephen summarized the whole generation of Jews before the Sanhedrin, in Acts 7:51, saying, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You're just like your fathers, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” Being stiff-necked, is the same as having an uncircumcised heart and uncircumcised ears, nothing penetrates. There's a hardness, an unyieldedness to God. Why so hard? What has brought this on? It’s the hardening power of sin under the skillful work of the devil. Sin tricks us. It deceives us, it entices us, and it hardens us to the word of the kingdom. Hebrews 3:12-13 says, “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God, but encourage one another daily as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.” Sin is tricky, and it has a hardening effect on the heart. Ephesians 4:18-19 says, “They are darkened in their understanding, and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity they have given themselves over to sensuality, so as to indulge in every kind of impurity with a continual lust for more.”
They're being gradually hardened and become even harder and harder over time. This reminds me of an illustration from the 1960 Olympics. There was a man from Ethiopia named Abebe Bikila. He won the gold medal in the marathon that year. He set the world record for 26.2 miles over the burning streets of Rome, the Appian Way, barefoot. Barefoot. Let me ask you a question, if you ran one mile on the street barefoot what would your feet look like? This man had been running barefoot all his life, and so his feet were tough as shoe leather and he just preferred to run without shoes, and so I would liken the constant rubbing and impact on Abebe Bikila's feet to what sin does to a heart. It just makes it hard. There's no yielded-ness, no interest whatsoever, in the gospel.
Recently I was on my way out to a pastor's conference in March, in California, and I had the opportunity to sit next to a woman on the flight and we had a lot of time together, more time than she would have liked I think. It's probably one of the saddest witnessing opportunities I've had in years. I talked to her, asked what she did, and she gave me some kind of a strange answer about herbal remedies or something like that, and I thought, "It's kind of hard to make a living doing that." Eventually she told me that she was in the adult entertainment business, going out to Los Angeles. She said it was the most wicked city on earth, and she was one of the hardest people I've ever talked to in all my life. She had a pleasant look on her face, but she said, "I hate people, I hate life, I hate food, I hate everything." Probably would've said, "I hate you." She didn't even know me, there was a hardness there, and it was tragic, and nothing that I tried would open her up, to the point where she kind of turned her body a little away and started reading and I realized that there was nothing more I could do. There was a hardness to her heart and so I prayed for her. The hardening that I'm describing, especially, takes root in the mind. It makes even simple biblical truth incomprehensible. 1 Corinthians 1:18, says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
Also in 1 Corinthians 2:14, it says that the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them because they're spiritually discerned. Sin hardens the heart, and the devil creates a world, a world system around us to accelerate that hardening, he wants that hardening. He's clever and devious and skillful at bringing it about. So the blessing of the word of God then becomes a curse. I believe that to hear the word of God, to hear the Gospel and reject it makes you just a little bit harder. It would've been better [2nd Peter 2:21] not to have heard the way of righteousness than to hear it and to turn your backs on the sacred command that was passed on to you. It's better not to have heard because the devil is so active. He's active in the hardening. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says, “The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” Satan does this hardening, but then he's very active at the moment of evangelism. He's mentioned in this text, do you see? When anyone hears the message about the Kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one, the devil, comes in, snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is very discouraging, isn't it? Because you think, well, at least I got a witness in there, at least I planted a seed. Well, if it's of this first category, you did nothing, you accomplished nothing for the Kingdom, because the devil has snatched away what was sown in the heart. It has no cumulative effect except hardening.
The difference is we can't tell from the outside what type of soil somebody is. They may eventually come to Christ so we need to scatter the seed widely. I'm just saying from heaven's perspective, looking down, if it's a hardened soil here, you accomplish nothing today by the preaching of the word, except increase hardening. It says the birds of the air come and snatch up or eat up what was sown. This is the devil, the evil one who comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. Satan uses a lot of tricks to do it. He uses the lust of the present age, the desires that people have for earthly pleasures, and uses the sins of other Christians to do it. You know the woman I described to you a moment ago? I almost hesitate to mention this, but she had as a client a pastor two or three years before that, and she said it was one of the most horrible experiences of her life. It was all she could do to get away from him physically, just to survive the time. I knew when she told me that that I had zero chance to lead her to Christ. But, of course, humanly speaking I have zero chance to lead anyone to Christ but I still have hope that the gospel can penetrate. I wanted her to believe. You see how the devil uses this, how hard it's going to be for somebody to reach her with the gospel. Satan will use false teachers to do it. He'll use fear to do it. "What will my friends think if I become a Bible thumper, what will happen to me?" Satan uses procrastination too. "Oh, I can always do that later, some other time, another seasonable moment", and so it's snatched away.
What are the eternal consequences of this? Well, hell. Eternal condemnation, eternal separation from God in torment. Revelation 21:8 says that the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. Unbelievers go to hell [ Revelation 21:8]. This is the tragedy of the hardened-packed soil heart that rejects immediately the word. These people are just simply closed to the Gospel. They may reject with violence and vigor, slam the door in your face, get rude, or they may just shrug and blow it off or make a joke, either way the word has had no effect on them.
The Rocky Soil
The second kind of soil that Jesus talks about is the rocky soil, what I would call the shallow. It is the temporary believer. Put believer in quotes, in one sense. Verses 20 - 21, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy, but since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.” When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. This is what I call the temporary believer. Now you say, "Is that possible? I thought you believed in the eternal security of the believer?" I just discern in the New Testament that there are different types of believers, there's different kinds of faith.
It is possible to believe in one sense for a little while and then fall away. In the Luke version of this parable, Jesus said, in Luke 8:13, “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root, they believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away.” That settles it for me. It is possible therefore to believe for a while and then fall away? What I believe is that this faith is not the faith that justifies, this is not the kind of faith we heard about in Romans. That we are justified by faith, apart from works of the law, it's not that faith. It's the kind of faith that Jesus encountered when he did miracles in Jerusalem in John Chapter 2. “While he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name.” They believed in his name, but he would not entrust Himself to them, for he knew all men, he did not need man's testimony about what was in a man because he knew all men. He knew what was in their hearts. Believing in his name is not justifying faith, so Jesus did not entrust himself to them. They had a different kind of faith. James is the one who gives us the clearest understanding of this. James 2:19 speaks of a faith which does not justify, we could call it demon faith. “You believe that there is one God. Good. Even the demons believe that and they shudder.” So there's a demon faith that certainly does not save.
Then there's a work-less faith, a faith that proves as no good works, it's a dead faith. James 2 also says it does not save. It is possible to believe of a sort and yet not be saved. Therefore, in this case, I find this soil perhaps one of the most troubling of all the soil type. Probably the most troubling, because this person has such a joyful reaction to the word. They're thrilled, they receive the word with joy, they're excited. That joy is genuine as far as it goes, it's a genuine surge of emotions that comes, and those emotions are usually intense. The plant springs up quickly, it looks like it's making good progress, it looks great from the outside. The person is so filled with exuberance, he tells all of his friends and neighbors and relatives about his new faith. He feels like all of his problems are solved. The very thing he's been looking for all of his life, he's founded at last, and he's telling everyone about it. He's doing all the kind of things you do in church, and he's just so excited he's what we would call "on fire for the Lord", filled with joy.
Now, I want you to understand joy over the Gospel is a good thing, it's a very good thing. Look at Verse 44 in our same chapter, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, when a man found it, he hid it again, and then, in his joy, went and sold everything he had and bought that field.” Joy over the treasure is a good thing. As a matter of fact, if you don't have it, I don't think you're converted. There needs to be a joy over the Kingdom, a rejoicing, a delight that your sins are forgiven and that you're going to heaven. Ever increasingly so. But, apparently, there's a counterfeit joy that's going on here earlier in the chapter. He receives the word with joy, but he has no root. This brings us, I think, to some of the history even of us as Southern Baptists, as evangelicals, what we call revivalism. There's different ways of looking at them. In one sense, spiritually and supernaturally a revival is a pouring out of the Holy Spirit on a body of people with great evidence of conversion, all kinds of things going on. It's an exciting time, but understand what we're praying for. It's a supernatural moving of the Holy Spirit, where by a large numbers of people are genuinely converted. Then in verse 44 you're going to see the joy of selling everything so that you can have the Kingdom. Could there also be some of the false joy as well where people are all excited and they get motivated? Maybe put their hands up in the air, maybe they scream for joy, maybe there are tears coming down their face. How can we tell the difference?
During the revival, the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was a careful student of these kind of displays. He was fighting a battle on two sides, on one side there was what he called the old lights, the kind of old staunch conservator. They said, this kind of enthusiasm in a religion is a bad thing, it's definitely of the devil. And he said, "No, it isn't." Then there are people on the other side who said it is definitely proof that the spirit has come when you see people jumping for joy and getting all excited or rolling on the ground or weeping or crying out. Edwards, with his careful thinking, said, it is no sure sign either way when you see this kind of joy. It's no proof either way, because we can show right in the text, it happens both with a genuine convert and with somebody who is going to fall away when tested. "I dare not trust the sweetest frame that's joyful state but wholly lean on Jesus's name." I think it's a good thing when people show outwardly, physically on their bodies, their joy, but I've learned to be careful when we preach the gospel, say, "Oh, definitely they were converted. I saw a tear in their eye." "Well, definitely they were converted, they were so happy after they prayed the sinner's prayer." Only one thing, perseverance over time through all kinds of tests that's fruit-bearing for years and years. That's what I get out of the seed and the soils here. There’s an immediate joyful outburst but what happens to the seed? It has no root system, and therefore it cannot survive. Since the faith has no root, it lasts only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, the person quickly falls away. Martin Lloyd-Jones told a story talking about the whole invitation system which we in our church have used, and others use, in calling people to an immediate outward visible response to the Word. He was preaching in a church once and there was this man that he had seen come regularly, but this one particular time the man seemed to be emotionally responding very powerfully to what was being preached. Lloyd-Jones was kind of torn in his mind what to do as a pastor. Should he go up and confront him and deal with him at a personal level? He had preached the Gospel, preached the word thoroughly, what should he do? In the end, he felt the Spirit leading him not to, but to just let the man go that evening. The next day he saw him, and the man interacted with him. Lloyd-Jones is on his way to the prayer meeting, and the man said, "You know, if you had asked me to come to prayer after that service, I would have come last night."
He said, "Well, come with me now. Come with me now." He said, "No, not interested. But if you would've ask me last night I would have come. And he said, "You know, if whatever you got last night didn't last one full day, it isn't the real thing. Whatever it was." So there's an immediate reaction and joy, but it has no roots, and when trouble comes because of the Word then you'd say, "What is that?" I think it's of two sorts. Persecution, namely your friends, neighbors. They see you're excited, but they're not excited, and they start to make your life hard. They start to oppose you, they start to persecute you, and you fall away because it's too expensive. It's got no root system. Or there's a different kind of trouble that comes by the Word. It's the troubling of the soul over the sin that's still in you. You get convicted, then you realize that you need to change your life, that there's sins that you must put to death, there needs to be a whole different way of living, and that's trouble caused by the Word, isn't it? That person has no interest in that kind of life change. In his mind, he has no genuine understanding of the gospel. The part he understands makes him happy, but he doesn't understand the whole scope of the Kingdom. In his soul there's no genuine brokenness over sin, no deep work with the law. Some of this easy decision-ism, it's a light work of the law and the heart, and the person isn't genuinely convicted over sin. There's no genuine relationship with God, that's what it means when it says he has no root. Jesus says that you are a branch, and I'm the vine, you're grafted in. There's a life giving sap that flows through you, and that sap enables you to survive any trial.The very same trial that weeds out the false believer, makes the true believer even stronger. In Romans 5:3-5, it says, “but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” Te trial comes and it makes the genuine believer even stronger, even more hopeful, but it makes the false believer fall away.
Fall away. What does it mean, "They quickly fall away?" This is the most troubling aspect of all. What's the time frame here? I have no idea. If he had told me that he would fall away within a year, and you could make it a year and a day then you're home free, right? If he had given a definite time frame and if you could just make it past that, it doesn't give it to... He just leaves it open. What it means is you need to continue to walk with Christ, day after day, seeking Him and loving Him, trusting in Him. But as soon as those trials come, for this soil, they quickly, quickly fall away.
What application are we going to take from this? I want you to assess yourself. We haven't gotten a chance to preach yet on the thorny soil or the fruitful soil, but you understand this parable. Who are you? Are you the hard-packed soil? Maybe you've been invited to church this morning and you came, but you have very little interest in the word. Oh, I pray that God would soften your heart, I pray that you would be open to the Word, and not blow it off, but accept it as not the word of man, but the Word of God which can save you. If you are the shallow soil, pray that you would be brought into a living, deeply-rooted relationship with Christ.